If you only know the Doctor in the 21st century then this series of articles will fill you in on their previous incarnations, a bit of the history of the TV show, and where to find collectibles, DVDs and books to catch up on the story. (Recent Doctor Who lore has pointed to there being earlier versions of the Doctor than we previously were aware of but, for simplicities sake, I shall still number the Doctors in the order of regenerations that we know for sure.)
In this article we will look at the First Doctor!
Who is the First Doctor?
When we first meet the Doctor it is through two teachers from Coal Hill School, Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton, who are concerned about one of their pupils, Susan Foreman. She’s a genius but seems scared when Barbara suggests going to her home to discuss her specialising, saying her Grandfather doesn’t like strangers. When Barbara checks out Susan’s address it turns out to be a junkyard, so Ian and Susan follow her ‘home’ one day and see her go into the junkyard, and enter a Police Box.
They meet an old man outside who pretends he didn’t see the schoolgirl, but when Ian and Barbara force their way into the Police Box they are shocked to find an expansive, futuristic control room. Susan and her Grandfather explain that they are aliens, exiled from their own planet, travelling in a space and time machine, that Susan named the TARDIS – Time And Relative Dimension In Space. When Susan threatens to stay on Earth with the Teachers rather than leave with her Grandfather, now they’ve been discovered, the old man sets the Tardis in motion taking them all to prehistoric Earth.
This Doctor is unable to accurately steer the TARDIS, and never knows where or when they will end up next – one minute it could be an alien planet, the next somewhere in Earth’s history. Ian and Barbara get used to travelling with Susan and her Grandfather, but when they get an opportunity to go home they take it. The time traveller sadly leaves his Granddaughter on Earth in the future, when she falls in love. He continued his random travels with other companions, until meeting his end after defeating the Cybermen.
Why did the first Doctor regenerate?
Towards the end of his first encounter with the Cybermen the Doctor collapses. When asked by companion Polly what’s wrong he says “Oh, I’m not sure, my dear. Comes from an outside influence. Unless this old body of mine is wearing a bit thin.“ All he knows is the he needs to get to the Tardis. Once in there, he begins to change…. [In the 12th Doctor’s final story, Twice upon a Time, he meets the first Doctor fighting against his regeneration, as he’s afraid of going through the process for the first time. But seeing how the 12th Doctor makes a difference to those around him, and saving lives, he decides to go through with it, succumbing to the transformation into the Second Doctor.]
The First Doctor’s personality
When we first meet him the Doctor is quite brusque and self-centred. He could be quite manipulative when trying to get his own way – for example when the rest of the group disagree with investigating a city on a dead planet, because of safety concerns, the Doctor claims a piece of tardis mechanism – the ‘fluid link’ – is low on Mercury, and visit to the city is required in order to replace it. (And, thus, we meet the Daleks.) His irritableness is worn away through his interaction with his companions, and he learns from them the necessity to get involved and come to the aid of those in need.
Behind the camera
In 1962 the BBC were looking at whether science-fiction might make make a suitable vehicle for teatime viewing, and this ended up with Canadian Sydney Newman, who had recently come to the BBC as Head of Drama. He took the idea from a BBC report that a time-machine would make a good science-fiction device to base a series on (which could make the series semi-educational with stories set in Earth’s history). He added the ideas of a grumpy frail old man, on the run from his technically advanced planet, and mysteriously known only as The Doctor. And so, the seeds were sown. [To see a more in-depth article on the development of Doctor Who, see the superb Doctor Who News series of articles.]
Who played the First Doctor?
William Hartnell was chosen by producer Verity Lambert (the BBCs youngest, and only female, drama producer) and director Waris Hussein. He was best known for playing Sergeant Major Percy Bullimore in The Army Game, but it was the his role as the aging rugby league talent scout, ‘Dad’ Johnson, in This Sporting Life that caught the eyes of the fledgling Doctor Who makers, leading them to ask him to take on the title role.
He played the role for three years, but failing health led to him stepping down in 1966, in the second story of the fourth season, The Tenth Planet. He returned seven years later, taking part in the show’s 10th anniversary story, The Three Doctors, joining his later selves, played by Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton, but his health was such that it was not much more than a cameo.
[Three other actors have also played the first incarnation of the Doctor on screen :
Richard Hurndall took on the role for the 20th Anniversary episode, The Five Doctors;
David Bradley was the latest version in the 12th Doctor’s swansong, Twice upon a Time (having already played William Hartnell in the docudrama about the origins of the show, An Adventure in Space and Time); and
Peter Cushing took the first Doctor to the silver screen in the 60s with two movie versions of the first two Dalek stories – Dr Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966)]
When did the first episode of Doctor Who air?
The very first episode of Doctor Who was shown at 5.16pm on Saturday 23rd November (the day after John F. Kennedy was assassinated). However a power cut had hit much of the country that day, and BBC executives agreed to repeat the episode the following week, just before episode 2.
What is a 'Police Box'?
Nowadays, the Police Box is synonymous with Doctor Who, as it there is no longer anything else like it. But that was not always the case. In the 1960s these were a regular feature in may cities, so viewers would be very familiar with them, and they would not look unusual, like they do now. Hence the Tardis’ “chameleon circuit” successfully doing it’s job and coming up with a suitably unobtrusive disguise. (A Tardis should blend into it’s surroundings, nit stand out. ) For some reason, though, the chameleon circuit apparently broke down and the ship remained this classic shape for the rest of it’s life (with one or two brief exceptions).
Version of Police Boxes had existed in the UK since the 1890s, to give the Police better communications and, thus, improve their crime fighting ability. But the classic version we know and love did not appear until the late 1920s in metropolitan London. Their use was phased out in the early 1970s, as the Police started using personal radios.
[To look in more depth at this subject visit The Mind Robber, who has written an excellent article – he is also a great 3D artist and Doctor Who fan, so while you’re there enjoy his many Who-based galleries!]
Throughout our time with this first incarnation, he never refers to himself as “the Doctor”. Before meeting him Ian had a notion that Susan’s grandfather was “a doctor”, and initially referred to him as “Doctor Foreman”, as that was the surname that Susan used (and “I. M. Foreman” was on the outside of the junkyard), but it’s clear that’s not his name when he responds “Doctor Who? What’s he talking about?” It is, of course, this mystery about the Doctor, that was a central point, summarised in the show’s title itself!
First Doctor Infographic
First Doctor Merchandise
Stuff to buy to further your time with the First Doctor.
First Doctor Figures
Classic Doctor Who on DVD - The First Doctor
Doctor Who – The Beginning (An Unearthly Child  / The Daleks  / The Edge of Destruction ) – £10.99
Doctor Who: The Reign of Terror [DVD] – £5.99
Doctor Who: The Dalek Invasion Of Earth [DVD]  – £5.99
Doctor Who: The Rescue & The Romans [DVD] – £5.99
Doctor Who: The Tenth Planet [DVD] – £6.99
Doctor Who – The Five Doctors (25th Anniversary Edition)  – £5.99
Doctor Who – Lost in Time [DVD]  – £10.99
Other First Doctor video
First Doctor Audio
Doctor Who: The Lost TV Episodes Collection One 1964-1965: Narrated full-cast TV soundtracks Audio CD – Unabridged – £35
Doctor Who: The Lost TV Episodes Collection Three: 1st and 2nd Doctor TV Soundtracks Audio CD – £24.44
Doctor Who: The Web Planet: 1st Doctor TV soundtrack Audio CD – Unabridged – £10.97
The First Doctor Adventures – Volume 1 (Big Finish Audio) Audio CD – £25.49
First Doctor books
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